One of the Islands, Thea Astley

ANZLitLovers Thea Astley Week, 17-25 Aug. 2020

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Early in 1972 the Young Bride and I were in Brisbane after a trip up the east coast with friends in our old Commer van (a pommy Kombi) and we got jobs with Ashtons Circus. I was electrician’s mate and she looked after some Ashton kids during the day and each night ushered in acts in a tutu and a feather. Which is not germane at all, except that four or five years later, after we had broken up, I spent three weeks providing the transport for a Split Enz tour of regional eastern Australia, and of course the two experiences were very similar – waiting off stage for the act(s) to end, then quickly packing up and that night or first thing next morning moving on to the next town.

I haven’t been reading much, or listening to anything interesting, so last night I thought I would read a story from Astley’s Collected Stories (1997) and write it up, as a preliminary for Lisa’s coming ANZLL Thea Astley Week. The volume, substantial at 340pp, is broken into four parts:

1. Stories 1959-76;
2. From Hunting the Wild Pineapple (1979), her first and only other collected short stories;
3. From It’s raining in Mango (1987), one of her later novels;
4. Stories 1981-89.

The stories seem to be all quite short, 5-20pp, and I thought I might read a couple from Part 1 then find one to review from Part 4. But the second story I read, in Part 1, pulled me up short and I want to discuss it. The first story I read was Beachmaster about a very old hippy who insists on, finds happiness in playing the drums and singing scat, badly. The narrator is a young man in a band, as is the narrator in the following story, One of the Islands. Astley went to uni around 1944, became a teacher and then a lecturer, but perhaps she had a secret hankering to be a pop star, though by the 60s when these stories are set she was approaching responsible middle age.

A clever young man drops out of school to become a guitarist, forms a band – and I remember those bands from local dances and school socials: two guitarists, a sax, drums and maybe piano or piano accordion.

So there I was two hundred miles further north, lead guitar for the Overtones and sleeping on the beach between engagements…

The Overtones became quite a hit for that part of the world … and we strummed and blew our way into the heat until we had played every tinpot dance hall up the coast and as far back as the Isa [Mt Isa in far north west Queensland].

Now, one of the reasons I don’t like short stories, is the guy-telling-a-yarn style that many is it only Australians? adopt, and which you can see in the extracts above, and which as far as I remember is not the style of Astley’s novels.

But to get to the nitty gritty

It was in the coastal towns that we first struck the groupies, teenyboppers below the age of dissent with twitching mini skirts over jiggling bottoms …

… oh, I had my share of the girls. It just went on and on. Some of them followed us right through to the ‘Curry [Cloncurry, near Mt Isa], about five of them. I don’t know how they lived – food and things.

One of them, not named, is keen on the narrator

She was frail looking and quite pretty from the waist up, with a shyness I couldn’t associate with her shrieking buddies. but she had these terrible thick legs. I mean really. Like some sort of deformity.

She asks if she can be his girl, but he says nothing, just “Come on. Let’s get you home”. The next night she comes round to the room where the band are packing up to leave. The other guys seize on her, and as the narrator walks out, heading for ‘one of the islands”, she is being raped.

That’s it. That’s the story. I was shocked last night. I’m shocked this morning retelling it.  Yes, there were groupies around the Split Enz tour. Girls, too young to be young women, taking drugs, giving away their bodies, make me sad. Not because I don’t like sex, but because it strikes me as self-degredation.

But Astley ends not with sex, but with rape. I can’t imagine what she was trying to say, let alone why she would choose in 1997 to have the story reprinted.

 

Thea Astley, Collected Stories, UQP, Brisbane, 1997

 

(For those of you left hanging after my last post my Covid-19 test was returned ‘negative’, but Milly won’t go out to dinner with me anyway, though she might come round for a while tomorrow and talk to me through the screen door).

21 thoughts on “One of the Islands, Thea Astley

  1. Well, I refer you to Catherine Harris’s The Family Men, (see my review here https://anzlitlovers.com/2014/09/04/the-family-men-by-catherine-harris/). I think Thea Astley was calling out the danger that these young girls put themselves into. They go along thinking that they might get to have consensual sex with the one they like, and quite apart from the fact that they are below the age of consent so it would be statutory rape anyway, that behaviour makes the young men think that they are also up for it with anyone else afterwards (or instead of), and maybe more than one of them whether they like it or not.

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      • Yeah, but short stories are like that. There’s not enough room to do more. I guess we’re meant to extrapolate from that, that his shallow dismissal of this girl as a human being because her body doesn’t meet his standards, is why he can so easily walk away?

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  2. Love the cover! That’s superficial isn’t it?

    I think Lisa is right about what Astley was doing. I think one of the values of short stories is that so little is mapped out that which encourages, if not forces, the reader to consider all the possibilities. Quite often the author doesn’t judge but lets you be the judge (though of course you can usually get a sense of what the author thinks of the situation.)

    BTW I’d like to tease out this “Now, one of the reasons I don’t like short stories, is the guy-telling-a-yarn style that many is it only Australians? adopt”. Do you mean by this the first person voice? Or something different. I must say that I tire a bit of the first person voice. I didn’t do more than make a comment in passing in my just posted review of a short story collection about it, but I have said a little more in other posts. Is it particularly Australian I wonder, or just contemporary style? (If indeed this is what you are talking about!!) I think if you love Jane Austen, you can miss that omniscient third person narration, and the wealth of effects, subtle and otherwise, it can achieve. (Of course, having every story in a collection written that way could also be too much.)

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    • The message I draw from this story is ugly girls deserve to be raped, so if you’re not good looking don’t go chasing guys. If you say but Astley has a good rep on women’s issues then are you advocating I should read through the lens of the author’s reputation? Would you have read this story the same way if it was written by David Ireland?

      I don’t mean first person, or just first person, but a particular style of telling a yarn that seems to be peculiar to Australians and which I find forced.

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      • I’ll have to read it Bill to answer this. I’m not saying you should read through the lens of Astley. I’m wondering if it’s a matter of tone. I just can’t see that being Astley’s message.

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  3. Hi Bill,

    I read Reaching Tin River for Lisa’s Thea Astley week, and interestingly the mother of the protagonist in this book plays drums and gets involved in small bands playing for country dances – I suspect Astley had a hankering to play drum kit as it’s in your story here as well! (It’s been relatively uncommon for women to play drum kit and Astley even protests about this in Tin River). Interestingly I used to play drum kit a bit long ago and also learnt djembe drumming (now very popular with women!)

    Reaching Tin River has very strong feminist overtones but Astley is unfiinchingly scathing about an overweight woman in the book in a passage I found rather distasteful (and I love much of Astley’s work). Frustration at the restriction of acceptable roles and behaviours for women clearly didn’t stop her from being very critical of other women – but women can be very nasty to other women and I think Astley could be nasty!

    It’s been a while since I read Hunting the Wild Pineapple I’m clearly going to have to have another read!

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    • That’s interesting that the story repeats some of the themes of Reaching Tin River, which I took down from my shelves but won’t get to read just yet. Some mate’s at school formed a band and persuaded me to be drummer, at which I soon proved my incompetence.

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  4. PS: I would concur that Astley would in no way be condoning rape – Reaching Tin River is far too critical of misogynistic behaviour – but Astley can also be very harsh towards women. I’ll have to read this story again to see what i make of it. Thanks for the review Bill.

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      • I’d love to read the story Bill but realise I don’t have a copy of Collected Stories by Astley. How frustrating…

        I only played drums for fun but there’s a surprising number of women playing them professionally out there now and good on them!

        Yes it sounds like Astley is repeating several similar themes in Tin River – which is a rather bleak book by Astley I must say. I’d be interested to hear what you think of it when you get around to reading it!

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  5. Wow. That story would leave me with quite an impression, too. I often wonder when stories end this like what the author was trying to convey. And why it was important in the moment. As Melanie recently taught me, context is everything — knowing the context in which a short story or poem was written, or even inspired by, can be everything when you want to understand it.

    I’m glad your test came back negative! So many tests. But it must be old hat for you by now…

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    • I’m certainly going to have to get used to being tested. In Perth I go to the central hospital which is not far from home, but I think that South Australia now has roadside testing so that’ll be handy if that works out. I’m not sure if she said so outright, but I think Melanie is having weekly tests too.

      This story struck me as brutal. I thought one of the things about #me-too is that girls shouldn’t ‘expect’ rape as a consequence of their own risky behaviour.

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